Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Chronicles of an ongoing battle between solipsism and empiricism

On one hand there is a real physical world out there with objects that we can see, hear, touch, perceive. Living entities are the most intriguing of them all- we can talk to them, we can listen to them, we can play with them, we can fight with them, we can build relationships with them.

On the other hand there is the mental world- the world of thoughts, emotions, ideas and dreams. Mathematics, philosophy, music, painting etc. are major manifestations of this mental world. They often give us a glimpse of the existence of an abstract world beyond the physical world we live in – the abstract world nearing to have a physical existence of its own, defying the word “abstract”.

We live in the physical world, with mountains, rivers, trees, animals, houses, roads, cars, schools, colleges, hospitals etc. but often we encounter bridges to the abstract world like the 9 3/4-th platform in Harry Potter’s stories. These bridges range from critically acclaimed works of art like Claude Monet’s paintings, John Keats’s poetry, Amir Khusrao’s and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and Plato’s dialogues to myriads of events we experience in pop culture- Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drives on TV, Ultimate Warrior’s crazy promos before Wrestlemania, Rick and Morty’s trippy episodes to name a few. In this blog I shall try to explore several of these bridges between the physical and the mental worlds in a methodical fashion . At the core of all my posts recurs a constant struggle between two conflicting ideas- the idea of realism/ empiricism/ materialism, i.e., this world exists as it is independent of us and we are perceiving it through our sensory organs and modifying it through our motor organs, and the idea of idealism/solipsism, i.e. there is nothing real in this world outside our mind, all our friends, family, jobs don’t really exist, they are just impressions in our mind and this world is nothing but a simulation. My posts however don’t resolve the age old debate among philosophers regarding these two contradictory epistemological positions. I don’t think anybody ever will be able to do so. My posts simply put this debate in the right context, and throw more light on it.

One more thing, I have used the existing terminology in academic “philosophy” very freely here and in my other posts partly due to my my academic background in science as opposed to philosophy and partly due to my little lack of reverence for existing academic “philosophy” to explore philosophical themes. Academic “philosophy” explores philosophical themes only through words, crafted in a meticulous fashion. But in my humble opinion, the same themes can be captured only if the words are backed by actions in day to day life giving the appropriate context to those words, e.g. how we talk to our colleagues, how we interact with our friends, how invested we are in our romances, are as important as scholarly articles in understanding philosophy.  As Kabir says,

“Labzo se hum khel rahe hai, maana haat na aaye,

Paani paani rat te rat te pyaasa hi raha jaaye

Shola shola rat te rat te lab par aanch na aaye

Ek chingari lab par rakh lo, lab turant jal jaaye”

(We are playing with words, but we don’t understand the meaning. We keep chanting “water” but we stay thirsty. We keep chanting “fire” but we don’t feel anything on our lips, but the moment we put a flame on our lips,  our lips burn).

Growing up in a society full of friends, family, classes, jobs, degrees and honors it is very hard to perceive the possibility of the existence of a world beyond the physical. But life experiences can be such (getting immersed in music or painting, a feeling of extreme pain or cornucopia of joy in love, an emptiness through isolation from society in a new country or job) that the existence of the abstract world not only becomes conceivable but can even take over the existence of the physical world in one’s consciousness. There are thoughts going on in our head and we translate only a few of the thoughts into action. In mathematical language, it is a many to one mapping from the mental world to the physical world. In extraordinary circumstances like solitude, it is often hard to distinguish the world of thoughts from the world of action because there are too many thoughts and too few actions. The lack of onlookers to verify the reality perceived through our senses adds to it. Our consciousness is largely collective after all, a lot of the common sense we use for our day to day actions is imbibed by us from society through collective wisdom. With lack of people, the collective wisdom may start fading.

And with it, often comes lurking forward the fear of death, an event probably absolute in an otherwise conflicting world of ideas and arguments and events where probably every argument can be countered by another argument. Though I shall attempt to make my posts in this blog be as drenched in bright sunshine as possible, somewhat like Ruskin Bond’s writing, I cannot guarantee that death won’t expose its dark face here and there in the posts.

Please check out the posts, thanks for visiting the site.

 

Advertisements
Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

A note written in isolation

I kept the lights on in the room before going to sleep. Because mom had asked me on the phone to do that.

I get up sometime in the middle of the night. I just see a body lying on the bed. What is that? Who is that?

Ohh, that’s me!

I am totally scared. I must call my mom tomorrow morning and tell her what is going on. I can’t stay here any longer, alone in this house. It has done strange things to my mind over the last few months. I need to go home, to Calcutta, live with my parents for a few days. I don’t care if I lose this job

But before I can think further I fall asleep again.

 

 

I discuss the situation with my mom on the phone in the morning. “You don’t have to do this job, you quit the job and come back home,” she said. She sounded scared. I feel scared too. And I feel sad for her. That feeling of empathy which I always try to avoid- that uncomfortable feeling starting from somewhere down in the belly, which makes me feel helpless!

That’s good! I am still having this feeling and I am trying to avoid it like I always do. Good! That means I haven’t lost it altogether. I must go home. I can’t live alone in this house. I am a danger to myself here. I must go home. I don’t think merely going to a psychologist will help. I am trying to solve the hard problem of consciousness! Have psychologists solved this problem? No, they have simply distracted people from the problem, But I can’t kill myself while trying to solve the problem. What has led to all these is isolation. I need to get out of it. I must go home, to Calcutta!

 

 

Have to survive one more night before I go home tomorrow afternoon! I try to read the newspaper. Nothing makes sense. It’s just some print. I realise this newspaper should also to be blamed for this. Over the last few months, every night I have come home from work and read this newspaper. This is a good source of facts and it has made me wiser probably, but these are just facts! There is no emotion here. No feelings! I should have taken the advice of my parents seriously and got a cable TV. Shouldn’t have dismissed the idea calling it a dumb box! All day I sit alone in my office and exert my brain to solve hard science and math problems. As interesting as those concepts are, they are very dry at the end of the day- there are no emotions! I should have come back home and watched TV and relaxed, instead of filling my brain with more dry facts from the newspaper. Seeing people laugh and cry and fight on the TV screen would have kept me connected to this world.

I put down the newspaper. I turn on my laptop and start watching one of my favorite Anjan Dutta movies- Cholo Let’s Go. The movie is exactly the same as I remember it to be! The same emotions at the same place. The emotions feel alien because of this isolation. I need to get out of this isolation. I need to go back to Calcutta, be with my family and feel these emotions! Need to come back to life!

I fall asleep. Just one more night to pass!

 

 

I get up. There’s light in the room. There are walls, and roof, and a wide white box stuck on the wall- ohh that’s an air conditioner!

It takes me a good minute probably to figure who I am! What I am doing in this room! I don’t think I had a dream in my sleep. When we are awake my perception of the moment depends upon the perception of the previous moment. It’s a continuity. Memory of the previous moment helps us understand the present moment. Sleep breaks the continuity. But when I get back up after eight hours of sleep, I still remember who I am immediately. That’s because I remember my last dream. Mind is still working during sleep, it’s dreaming!

I didn’t have any dream last night. That’s why I couldn’t remember who I was. Spending the day with math and science is great, that’s all I have been doing last few months at this place, but one can’t dream of equations in their sleep. One probably can, I have too in the past, but people, feelings, love, emotions surface in dreams much easier and faster! I haven’t had any of that last few months. I have formed no memories of this place, made no connections with the people around! Quite naturally my dreams are vanishing.

It’s okay, I just need to survive a few hours here now, I am going home!!!

 

 

I gotta clean the kitchen before I leave though. I play Beatles on my phone to keep me connected to this world- to the things I love or loved. I should have kept listening to Beatles instead of getting into all these deep philosophical and mystic songs! I have been listening to Beatles since my late teens!

I start cleaning the utensils. I remember I had hidden the pressure cooker handle in the cabinet last night after I used it for cooking because I was too scared of cleaning it last night. What if I put the lid inside my mouth and swallowed it! Fear of small object! The biggest of all the fears.

I can’t leave the pressure cooker handle like that in the cabinet when I am gone! It has rice sticking into it, insects are gonna be all over the place. I must clean it. But what if I try swallow the lid. Let me go dump the trashbag in the trash can outside. Seeing the outdoors will make me more connected to this world.

I get out and reach the gate. It’s so sunny outside. A guard is sitting on the adjacent wall. He sees me and salutes and goes back to the exact same pose! This is a horrible place, I need to get out of here. I feel like I am living in a simulation. That idea that I had read about- that this world can be real or it can be a simulation- no way we can tell the difference- I think I have hit a point where it actually feels like it can only be a simulation!

I get back to the kitchen. I pull out the pressure cooker handle from the cabinet, put it in the sink and start cleaning it. I feel a strange overpowering inclination to put it the mouth. No I won’t swallow it, I won’t even put it all the way inside my mouth, just my lips will touch it a little bit. It’s a strange obsession! I am not being able to resist it. I try to mildly push the lid up the handle with a spatula. If the lid comes out I will bring it close to my mouth, but I know it won’t come out easily, it will offer resistance, and then I won’t put it close to my mouth and there is no chance of killing myself. And indeed it offers resistance while I try to push it up! That’s how pressure cooker functions. Even if the world is just a simulation, it is a self consistent one!

But this is too scary. My mind is too turbulent! I need to write down notes to record my thoughts so that I stick them and do not do anything crazy later. I write on my hand with a pen- “Do not stay alone in this house again”. Then I start packing my bags to go home.

 

 

When the plane landed at the Calcutta airport that night, they got a bus to carry the passengers from the runaway to the terminal of airport. As I walked along the runaway towards the bus, I paused at some point. I bent down and touched the ground with the tip of my fingers. And then I brought my fingers close to my mouth and kissed them. This is the soil of the city I grew up in! This is me, or whatever part of me that I had lost over the years. I need to find it back!

When I reached home that night I saw my mom at the verandah of the house waiting for me. I embraced her and almost cried. She comforted me- “now you are home, everything is gonna be fine now!”

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

The subjective aspect of consciousness and its possible origin

In this essay I will try to explain what I think consciousness possibly is, and where it originates from, using some amount of logical reasoning and some amount of narration of my past experiences. Different terminologies used in various scientific and philosophical texts in the past have also been used, albeit a bit more freely so that I am not confined within the bounds of these jargons while explaining my somewhat more freely flowing thoughts. Also, my personal experience plays a key role in my essay. I do not think one can come up with deep insights about consciousness without narrating their personal stories, which often makes me look down upon academic philosophers who try to explain consciousness in an impersonal way, merely through words. I have narrated my story in short here. For more details the readers are encouraged to read the “Short Stories section of this blog.

Making a sharp distinction between the physical world and the mental world is very important for this analysis, as I have done in my previous essays too. Mental world essentially refers to the sentience or cognition or consciousness of a human being here. Within their own mind, a human being can come up with a set of self consistent assumptions or axioms and from there make various deductions. The whole body of that knowledge can be called logic or mathematics. Though some of the axioms in mathematics can have inspiration from the physical world (e.g. it is hard to believe that people did not come up with the axioms of Euclidean geometry without looking at the world around us and drawing clues from it) the deductions made in mathematics do not need any verification from the physical world to be true.

Now, once certain assumptions about the physical world are added to this body of mathematics, a human mind is capable of constructing a whole set of theories with which they can explain every phenomenon in the physical world. The beauty in this branch of knowledge, called physics, as I understand it lies in coming up with a minimum set of assumptions (often called laws in physics, as opposed to axioms in mathematics) with which after using the tools of mathematics one can explain a vast majority of phenomena in the physical world, if not everything. This “reductionist” approach in physics has sometimes been countered by an “emergent” approach where it is said that you can’t explain everything about the physical universe by boiling it down to the properties of the tiniest matter. As we go from one scale to another, e.g. say atomic scale to molecular scale to scale of living matter, new laws emerge at the different scales, which means that matter at its tiniest level won’t have the properties that a big macro-system does. This leads to other branches of physical sciences like chemistry and biology, each of which has a new set of assumptions compared to physics since matter is being explored at a slightly more macro scale in each case. But even in that case, if we describe the phenomena at the tiniest scale correctly through equations, and consider the coupling between the different particles correctly, and then solve for the full system through an extremely efficient computer we will be able to predict the properties of matter at the macro scales. Building such an efficient computer has always been challenging however.

In any case, my main point here is that human beings, starting with some assumptions in mathematics and some assumptions about the physical world, may be explain all the physical phenomena in the world. I cannot say with certainty that they can because there are lots of sub-branches of physics, chemistry or biology that I do not understand well. But there is a high chance they can. However, despite all that, a big mystery still remains which is the following.

All the physical phenomena that have been reported have always come from human beings directly or indirectly. We, humans, are using our minds to comprehend this physical world and narrate all the occurrences in it. So the big question is- do our minds follow the same physical laws they have come up with to explain the physical world. Some people think- yes, and some people think- no, and I think both the groups have valid points. Our current understanding of the human brain is very limited. We understand the functioning of the tiniest cell that makes up the brain- the neuron, to some degree. We also understand how different parts of the brain, which are made up of multitudes of such neurons, function to some degree. But we are far from understanding the link between the two, i.e., how the single neurons inside the brain with very simple functionality team up together to carry out such complex functions, that those different larger parts of the brain do. As long as we do not figure out this link, the mystery remains, and even if we do figure out this link one can always say, “Hey, you constructed physical laws in your brain to explain the physical world and with that you are explaining your own brain. It’s a loop. How do you know this whole world is not just a simulation you are experiencing?”. I do not think that we can ever answer this question conclusively. Yet, we have to “believe” in or have some “faith” in some kind of assumption or hypothesis and call it an absolute to carry out our lives instead of just continuously thinking in this loop and eventually kill ourselves. The propensity to continue our lives at any cost is some kind of absolute, which drives us to do that.

Some people make some very simple hypothesis about life and carry on. They probably have never cared about how easily one can falsify their hypothesis because they simply do not have the time or the interest or the luxury to ponder over it. On the other hand, some people like me after much reading and thinking and most importantly experiencing different things in life have come up with probably a much more refined hypothesis, which is much harder to falsify. This essay is basically about one such hypothesis I have come up with. After much reasoning and of course personal experience, I am compelled to think that this is the closest thing to absolute truth that I can possibly imagine. That probably doesn’t mean much unless I provide some reference to an existing body of literature, refer to some open problem in the field and claim that my hypothesis, if considered true, solves that problem. So yes, then I should say that I think my hypothesis, which I state next, solves the “hard problem of consciousness”, which has been formulated by contemporary

As I wrote before, all accounts of the physical world need some sentient or conscious being. What is consciousness basically? It can be considered as something that originates from the interaction of neurons inside the brain , but as I said before, it hasn’t been proven yet and even if it is proven it will still be proven within the framework of mathematics and science, which has been a product of consciousness itself. Hence I am forced to take a more metaphysical or experiential route here to explain consciousness. Based on my own experiences I have realised that there is always a subjective aspect to consciousness apart from the objective aspects of it. All the people that I have talked to about this have either agreed with me or have refused to talk about it and changed the topic. I haven’t met anyone who has reported to me that their consciousness is completely objective.

Explaining the origin of the subjective aspect of consciousness is known as “hard problem of consciousness” in literature. My simple hypothesis explains it. At any given moment when we are awake, all sorts of signals from the physical world enter our brain through our sensory organs. The basic processing of it is the objective aspect of consciousness. For example, people in the same room see the exact same roof or the same furniture or the same window. But along with this basic processing, every human being is making some kind of interpretation of that incoming signal which is much more personal to them. That aspect of consciousness is the subjective aspect. My hypothesis is that this subjective aspect is nothing but some kind of calibration that the brain does between the current incoming signal and some pre-existing signal or state in the brain. In an electronic system designer or a computer engineer’s language, if the processing of the current incoming signal is the computing aspect of the brain, the pre-existing signal in the brain is the memory aspect of it. For consciousness to exist, memory has to be combined with processing. Yes, some extra-ordinary people claim that they have lived in the moment and experienced reality as it is in the present, bereft of any reference to the past. It is not possible for me to agree or disagree with that, given it is their experience and not mine. I have also personally tried to experience that kind of absolute reality, but the issue has been that for whatever mysterious reason, some fear of death creeps in during such moments of absolute experience, and hence I have stayed away from it beyond a point.

Here is a short account of my experiences. While working and living abroad, I got into spiritual practices following a heartbreak like a lot of people do. Spiritual practices made me quite oblivious of the physical world and took my mind to some state of happiness or bliss. The small amount of subjectivity that is always present in our consciousness always leaves the nature of reality we live in a little ambiguous and gives us the space to believe in anything we want- from ancient mythologies to modern era comic book superheroes. The same thing happened with me. I created a set of fairly self-consistent theories in my mind and explained a lot of things around me including the behaviour of people using those theories often correctly. A lot of these meta-physical theories is often based on some kind of careful psychoanalysis. However indulging in them too much has its issues, and that is what happened to me.

But when I changed my city and country and continent and lost my friends, loneliness at the new workplace slowly made the same abstract blissful world I built up in my head very horrifying. Now in retrospect, staying connected to real world happenings through cable television or some online streaming service instead of indulging in some ancient mystical practices would have been much a smarter choice, but then I wouldn’t have probably had such experience of absolute reality and wouldn’t have been able to come up with this hypothesis. So yes, back to the story, loneliness went to a point where I started getting detached from all my past memories of living a normal life full of love and friendship. Dreams started vanishing. Basically in a normal state of mind our perception of the world around always has that awareness of who we are in it. Even when we get up from sleep, we recollect our dreams and immediately become aware of our identity.  As I said before, it is some sort of calibration between the current signal and some pre-existing signal or memory in the brain. In those lonely days in the new city, as I stopped making personal connections with the people around, the calibration started going off. Finally after a few hours of absolutely dreamless sleep, the calibration went totally off and I could experience the room I was sleeping in the way it was – just walls and roof, without any awareness of who I was. After a few seconds of that I could recollect who I was, but it left me with a scary feeling. The urge to self destruct comes very naturally after that point. After all if you don’t know you are, there is nothing stopping you from jumping off a top building or in front of a car and killing yourself.

But as I said before, the propensity to live is a strong absolute in humans. Hence for my own good, I moved to my hometown where my parents and rest of my family lived, spent a lot of time with  them, reconnected with school friends and most importantly stopped indulging in any kind of metaphysical or spiritual practice or thought process. Instead I took much more interest in simple worldly things like cricket and comedy shows on TV. Gradually all the memories of my childhood started coming back and the death trips started going away. Memory works in a very strange way. It is not like I had forgotten those things, they were all there in the recesses of my brain. It is just that since I lived far way from my hometown for years, my surroundings never reminded me of those memories and gradually I got detached from them. As the memories started coming back, I felt much more “grounded” (for the lack of a better word) and happy. This happiness felt much more real than the happiness I experienced through metaphysical practices about a year back, which as I mostly understand now was a trance. The calibration process started getting lost inside my brain around that point. Anyway,  the whole experience made me appreciate the importance of a well functioning memory in life and how it shapes our overall experience and consciousness. In fact, what gives me the utmost happiness now is that these days while I am working on a particular thing, I suddenly recollect something from my childhood, which is completely unrelated to what I am doing at the moment. Basically the brain cells that stored those memories over a long period of time went dormant over the years because my surroundings didn’t remind me of them. Now once I am back in the surroundings where those memories were created in the first place, the brain cells which stored those memories have started firing more frequently, sometimes without any reason. Now even when I am away from my hometown, since all these memories of childhood have come back to me, I do not feel that kind of detachment from life and memories anymore.  Thus, the subjective nature of our consciousness, and in extension the quality of our life experiences, is largely shaped by those memories in our brain which we are regularly in touch with.

The experiential nature of this subject makes it very hard to come up with some kind of truth, that will be universally agreed upon. However I think that if one goes with my simple hypothesis that our perception of reality is always associated with some pre-existing signal/ memory in our brain, they can explain the subjective aspect of consciousness that pervades their daily experiences. In fact they can also make their everyday life a much more wholesome experience by staying in touch with their best memories and letting those memories shape their perception of their current reality.

It is to be noted here that even in the field of artificial intelligence or neural network or neuromorphic computing, where one tries to develop cognitive or sentient abilities in non-sentient hardware systems, memory is often embedded with computing to achieve the desired goal of learning. Building such memory embedded computing platforms has been the subject of my professional research in the recent years. Hence writing this essay also  gives me the happiness and self-satisfaction that I have finally been somewhat able to connect my personal and philosophical explorations connected to the human mind over the last decade with the subject of my professional research. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fantasy

My little guide to the Marvel cinematic universe

The epic finale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Avengers Endgame, just got released. Never have I witnessed a science fiction/ fantasy movie of such an epic proportion other than its immediate prequel Infinity War. The thunderous claps that can be heard in the theaters during the epic fight sequences of Endgame speaks volumes how heavily the Marvel franchise got the audience invested in its characters over the last decade.

To cherish this epic moment in the history of cinema of the fantasy / sci- fi genre, I have been bing-watching all the 21 movies of the MCU these past few weeks. Some I had watched before but had forgotten the plots, some I had never watched earlier! As I watch them, the nerd that I am, I have been taking notes so that I have the full picture of MCU in my head while watching Endgame.

So here is a brief summary of each of their plots, description of the main characters and some interesting observations I made connected to each movie that hold all of them together. Going over this post will quickly provide the readers with all they need to know to follow and enjoy Avengers: End Game. (Empty spaces below the names of some movies will be filled up soon as I watch them)

PHASE 1

1. Captain America : The First Avenger (Timeline: Second World War, 1942-45, location: Brooklyn, NY, US and Europe)

Hero: Steve Rogers aka Captain America

Villain: Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull

Other important characters: Peggie Carter (Officer in Super Soldier project and Cap Am’s love interest), James “Bucky” Barnes (Cap Am’s best friend from Brooklyn), Chester Philips (colonel in US army)

Plot Summary : Steve Rogers is a frail young guy from Brooklyn who shows a lot of heart in every fight with bullies but gets beaten up. Steve’s passion and good nature wins over Dr. Erskine, who injects the Super Soldier Serum, invented by him, into Steve, coupled with “vita-rays” and turns Steve a much taller and muscular Captain America. Cap Am next leads a mission that rescues his friend Bucky Barns, who was captured in the war, and then demolishes the Hydra project, led by Johann Schmidt/ Red Skull, who had utilized the power of the Tesseract and Erskine’s serum to nearly launch weapons of mass destruction at major American cities. In order to prevent the plane that contained those weapons from destroying the American cities, Cap Am was left with no option but crashing it in the Arctic and got buried in the ocean in the process.

Interesting facts:

  1. The Tesseract was brought to earth by Odin (king of Asgard and father of Thor) long time ago, as mentioned by Schmidt.
  2. Howard Stark, the science and technology entrepreneur, who assists in the Super Soldier project is Tony Stark aka Iron Man’s father.
  3. When the container that held the Tesseract broke inside the plane towards the end of the movie and Schmidt held it in his hand, it opened up a wormhole which made Schmidt disappear. Essentially in these fantasy movies, important characters do not die that easily.  Instead they disappear through wormholes so that they can reappear in some other space and time.
  4. The tesseract was later found by Howard Stark from the floor of the ocean.
  5. Cap Am’s friend Buckey falls from a train in a fight scene in which Cap Am and company try to demolish the hydra project. Buckey is assumed to be dead.
  6. Ending/ Mid credit/ Post credit scene: About 70 years after World War II, Captain America wakes up from his sleep. Nick Fury, director of Shield, welcomes him to modern day America and talks about a mission with big implications .

2. Iron Man (Timeline: late 2000s, sometime during the later part of the Afghanisthan war, location : NY, US and the middle east)

Hero- Tony Stark aka Iron Man

Villain- Obadiah Stane, Ten Rings (group that captures Stark)

Other important characters: Pepper Potts (Tony Stark’s PA and love interest), Colonel James Rhodes (Stark’s friend), Yinsen (scientist who implants the electromagnet in Stark’s chest that keeps Stark alive)

Plot Summary: Technologist and entrepreneur Tony Stark gets captured in the Middle East by a group called Ten Rings, where he finds them using weapons made by his own company for killing innocent people. With the help of fellow captive Yinsen, Stark makes the first Iron Man suit wearing which he escapes from captivity. After getting back home, he upgrades his suit. He also finds out that Obadiah Stane, second-in-hand in his business has carried out several under the table deals with organizations like Ten Rings and sold his company’s weapons to them. Soon Stane gets his own suit made and tries to kill Stark. In the climax of the movie, Stark, dressed in his Iron Man suit, beats Stane when Stark’s PA Pepper Potts overloads a reactor that causes a massive electrical surge and burns Stane.

Interesting facts:

  1. Tony Stark wears a shining chest piece throughout the Iron Man movies. It is essentially an electromagnet which prevents pieces of shrapnel that entered his chest during the explosion in middle east from piercing into his heart. The original version of it was made by Yinsen in a cave in the middle east, where Stark was captured by the Ten Rings. Stark later upgraded it when he got back to US.
  2. The Iron Man suit Stark makes is powered by the chestpiece.
  3. SHIELD representative Phils Coulson is shown several times in the movie approaching Stark for a secret project. He later assists Pepper Potts in fighting Stane.
  4. Ending/Mid Credit/ Post credit scene: Once Stark reveals himself as Iron Man to the press, Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, approaches Stark to talk about the formation of a superhero group called Avengers.

3. The Incredible Hulk

4. Thor (Timeline: 2011, location: Asgard, New Mexico, US)

Hero: Thor

Villain : Loki, Laufey (king of the Frost giants)

Other important characters- Jane Foster (astrophysicist and Thor’s love interest), Erik Selvig (astrophysicist, works with Jane Foster), Odin (father of Thor), Thor’s childhood friends- Hogan, Fandral, Sif

Plot summary- Thor is about to be coronated as the king of Asgard, but the frost giants, against whom the Asgardians fought wars previously but currently have a peace treaty with, try to steal the “Casket” from the Asgardians. This infuriates Thor and drives him to Jotunheim (land of Frost Giants) for revenge. Odin doesn’t approve of such rash and untactful act on Thor’s part, strips Thor of all his powers and banishes him to earth along with his hammer, which he cannot lift anymore.

On earth, Thor falls in love with an astrophysicist who works on portals between different galaxies, which are roughly equivalent to “realms” in Asgardian terminology. In the process, he loses a lot of his old arrogance and starts caring about her and other fellow denizens on earth. As a result, when Thor’s brother Loki, who has always been jealous of Thor, sends the Destroyer to earth to kill him, Thor offers himself to the Destroyer urging it not to kill anyone else on earth. This act of kindness on Thor’s part moves his father, who lifts away all his curses. Thor recovers his strength and his hammer, bids his lover goodbye, goes back to Asgard and destroy the bridge (Bifrost) that connects Asgard with other realms so that Loki cannot go to Jotunheim and destroy it.  Thor and Loki get in a fight in the process, and Loki apparently commits suicide by refusing Thor and Odin’s help and falling off the bridge at some point.

Interesting facts-

  1. Portal between different galaxies/ realms through which people can travel across time and space have been referred to as “wormholes” in most Marvel movies, but in this movie the more technical term- Einstein Rosen Bridge is used a few times.
  2. Hawkeye is shown to be working for SHIELD in this movie. When Thor gets very close to the hammer and is about to pick it up, Hawkeye is shown pointing an arrow at him from a distance and talking to Phil Coulson, agent of SHIELD.
  3. Coulson confuses the Destroyer, sent by Loki to earth, to be Iron Man at first.
  4. Thor promises his support to SHIELD in the movie in his short coversation with Agent Coulson before he leaves the earth. Thus this movie follows the lines of the other movies in Phase 1 that it introduces an Avenger, narrates his origin story and roughly ends with a scene on how he got connected with SHIELD and rest of the Avenger team.
  5. Ending/ Post credit scene: The post credit scene of “Thor”  shows Nick Fury introducing Dr. Selvig to the Tesseract, with Loki watching them from the shadows and mystically controlling Dr. Selvig. This scene is an immediate precursor to the starting scene of “The Avengers”, where Loki comes to the same location, steals the Tesseract and abducts Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig, controlling their minds in the process.
  6. It is not clear how Loki survived the fall from Bifrost and got back to earth. Marvel Wiki says that he passed into an wormhole and reached Other (featured in “The Avengers”) and Thanos. He made a pact with Thanos that he would attack the earth with the help of the Chitauri army and rule it, and in exchange will steal the Tesseract from the earth and hand it over to Thanos since it is one of the infinity stones.

 

5. The Avengers (Timeline: 2012, location : NY, US)

Hero- Tony Stark aka Iron Man, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, Bruce Bannar aka The Hulk, Thor, Natasha Romanoff or black widow ( a spy based around Russia working for SHIELD), Clint Barton or Hawkeye (another spy working for SHIELD)

Villain – Loki (Thor’s brother)

Other characters- Nick Fury ( the mastermind behind SHIELD), Maria Hill (agent of SHIELD who works with Fury), Phil Coulson (agent of SHIELD, appeared in Iron Man as well), Erik Selvig (astrophysicist who is enslaved by Loki and helps Loki with the tesseract), Other (leader of extra terrestrial race known as Chitauri who gives Loki an army under the condition that Loki will give him the tesseract)

Plot summary- Guided by the ambition to rule the human race Loki makes a deal with Other, leader of extra terrestrial race Chitauri, that they will give him an army to help him attack the earth if Loki can give him the Tesseract, possessed by the SHIELD on earth. Loki enters earth from outer space through a portal,  steals the tesseract, enslaves various agents and scientists of SHIELD and takes their help in energizing it. In order to stop Loki from ruling the planet, Fury puts together a team of superheroes called the Avengers. After several banters and quarrels within the group, the Avengers finally unite, Culson’s death in the hands of Loki being the catalyst. The Avengers successfully beat Loki and his army that attacked Manhattan, NY, entering the earth through an open portal. Iron Man sends the nuclear missile, launched by the higher administration to destroy Manhattan in order to kill Loki, to outer space through that portal. The Tesseract is recovered, Thor carries it with Loki back to Asgard and the rest of Avengers disbands for the moment.

Interesting facts-

  1. Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) are shown to be very familiar with each other. They refer to a lot of their past adventures together, with a particular emphasis on some incident in Budapest.
  2. The Tesseract is shown to be possessed by the SHIELD in the beginning of the movie. There is a reference to its recovery from the bottom of the ocean, which was shown in “Captain America: The First Avenger”.
  3. The movie ends with the Tesserract being taken back to Asgard, where it came from originally (again shown in the beginning of “Captain America: The First Avenger”), by Thor and Loki, who is chained.
  4. In the beginning of the movie, Banner/ Hulk is shown to be practicing medicine in the outskirts/ slums of Calcutta. What a way for Calcutta to be a part of the Marvel franchise!
  5. Mid credit/ end credit scene- Other is seen complaining to Thanos that humans are an unruly species.

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Note from the hills #3: Mussoorie and Landour, Feb 22-24, 2018

A couple of years has passed since my last note from the hills. I have mostly lived in two Indian metropolises Delhi and Calcutta this entire time and haven’t seen any mountain range, which means there has been no pine tree, no fir, no winding road up the hill sky, no blue day sky, no clear starry night sky and no fresh unpolluted air for quite a long time. Not that I am complaining, I am dead serious about my job now and that kind of work can’t really be done from up in the mountains. But nature was a part of my everyday life when I was in Berkeley and I did miss nature a lot in the big Indian cities, which made me do this escape to the hills for a couple of days.

Right now I am sitting at the outdoors of a cafe high up on the mountains with  a cup of coffee and writing this note. The place is called Landour. My table faces the pine trees that have covered the entire slope of the mountain. The cookie that the server gave me on a plate with the coffee didn’t last long though. A monkey came and grabbed it, triggering a shock wave among the people chilling at the cafe including myself.

This place and these trees are particularly significant to me. An hour hike from the touristy hill station called Mussorie nestled high up on the edge of the Himalayas, this small but busy town called Landour is the place where one of my favorite authors, Ruskin Bond, lives and writes from. The trees I am facing right now are essentially the same ones that inspired a lot of his writings. These are the trees that constantly watch him as he sits at his desk next to the window of his house and writes. The sounds of whisper through the woods that he describes in his writings essentially originate from these trees. A large reason for me to choose Mussoorie of all the hill stations to take this much needed break from my work in Delhi was the temptation to visit Ruskin Bond’s town.

I got to Mussorie yesterday afternoon and spent the evening walking along the relatively quiet Camel’s Back Road and enjoying the view of the valley from there. This morning, after an arduous walk through a narrow but busy road uphill from Mussorie, I reached Landour. At once I was greeted by the portrait of Ruskin Bond painted on the walls. Other than Tagore’s paintings on walls all over Calcutta, I have never really seen an author’s portrait on the walls of an  Indian town or city. As I walked further up, I enquired the local people about the exact location of Mr. Bond’s house. In this process, I also met a fellow Ruskin Bond fan from Bombay, who is also visiting Landour for the same reason as me- to locate Mr. Bond’s house. Together we strolled around the neighborhood and eventually located his abode, next to a very colorfully painted Domo’s cafe.

The house looked exactly like he described in his books. The red staircase was there, the famous window was there, and also the corrugated tin roof. A dog was sleeping on the staircase. We stood in front of the house, across the road, for a long time and chatted, with the midday sun caressing us. We mostly talked about what were the chances of someone establishing oneself as a writer in today’s age. If either of us moved to the hills and started writing as good as Bond sahab, would we be able to sell our books too?  As the chat got more interesting and turned more into a debate, the dog woke up and in order to find a more sunny spot walked up to us. We had to make room for him to lie down as a result. Usually I am quite scared of dogs but this dog seemed overtly chill and friendly. It was Ruskin Bond’s stray-dog after all. My new friend suggested that the dog should be called Rusty.

After a while we decided to leave Rusty alone and walked further up to a place called Char Dukaan, which had a bunch of restaurants and cafes, one of them being Cafe Ivy, where we are sitting in right now. The cafe is particularly fancy with elegant furniture and lighting, and proper blues music being played on the audio system. If only the server made us alert of the monkey threat!

A lot has happened in the last couple of years, since my last visit to the hills, which was Shimla. Things really  went south after that- further loneliness at work,  confusion regarding what to do next in my career, that insane moment early morning one day when I got up from sleep, looked at the walls around me of my almost empty bedroom in my new house and didn’t even know who I was for a good few seconds. All my pursuit of truth through the science lessons in Berkeley, the intense relationships with Diggy and Polo, the experimentation with spirituality, the loneliness in Delhi- had finally turned successful. I didn’t realize it right away at that moment but later as I pulled myself through all the toll that that experience itself and everything that preceded it for the last few years on my mind, I realized it.

I had essentially solved the “hard problem of consciousness”- at least to my own satisfaction. The problem, as framed by academician David Chalmers. I refuse to use the word “philosopher” for researchers sitting in Philosophy departments of universities writing essays on philosophy for a living and calling themselves philosophers. To me, all human beings who think about the world around and reflect on their lives are philosophers. Why should only researchers in Philosophy departments get the privilege to call themselves so!  In any case, David Chalmers  essentially tries to explore the subjective nature of reality by calling it the “hard problem of consciousness”. The reality as we perceive it through our minds always has a subjective aspect to it. The problem lies in explaining what it actually is.

That morning when I woke up from my sleep I had no understanding of who I was for a good few seconds. It was just a body lying on the bed- and I was just looking at it. No, I wasn’t under the influence of any psychedelic. Just by living in a new city for months where I couldn’t connect with anyone personally, by simply talking about only science and mathematics with colleagues at work and by never really doing anything simple and fun like reading fun story books or watching some dumb show on cable TV as opposed to reading existential philosophy, I had started getting detached from all my memories of living like a normal human being. There is something eerie about workplaces- people never connect with each other personally and emotionally, they are always throwing facts at each other and talking of stuff in a strange impersonal way such that you get to know nothing about them even if you meet them at workplace for months, as if there is nothing to life other than facts and logic and deliverables. All that got into me- I forgot to laugh, forgot to smile, forgot to feel, as insane as that sounds.

And all that led to a strange detachment from memories of my past- memories of childhood, high school, Berkeley, Polo, Diggy, parents. There is a subtle difference between forgetting things and being detached from things- I still remembered all these things and people, it’s just that I forgot the feelings associated with my experience of these things and people, which led to this sense of detachment. And that resulted in dreams vanishing from my sleep slowly- the science and mathematics you discuss at work don’t make your dreams, what makes your dreams is the feeling and emotion you attach to them when you discuss them at work with other fellows- you voicing your aspiration to be a top researcher or a heated debate with your colleague about how a certain thing works- that’s what dreams are made of along with other things like good and bad memories you make during the day,  the longings you have for your loved ones- practically all sorts of emotions. Since all emotions were going out of me living in this strange work environment in this new place, my dreams were vanishing too until that morning when I woke up from my sleep with a completely blank mind.

Careful reflection on that moment probably explains the subjective nature of experience, and hence the hard problem of consciousness. At any given moment in time, our experience of the world has two components to it- the external world that is sending signals to our brain through different stimuli perceived by our sense and motor organs, and the memory of our past moments that is embedded in our brain. The subjective nature of reality that we perceive or rather subjective nature of our experience is essentially a calibration between the incoming signal from the external world and some pre-existing signal/ memory already embedded in our brain. Without this calibration, we can perceive the external world as it is as I did that morning when I woke up- I just saw the walls, the bed, my body the way they were without relating them with anything  I had pre-conceived about them. Finally after all these years I was probably able to “live”in the moment”.

But then given that I experienced a moment just the way it was, why couldn’t I just live like that? What was so scary about it? The reason for the scare was the fear of death- somehow death reveals its scary face in a such a moment, as I had also felt in the past during my entire spiritual pursuit. It actually makes sense now that I think about it – what really makes us continue our lives is this will to do something, to achieve something, to realize our own potential. If we experience the world around just the way it is independent of us and you even look at our own bodies that way, and we don not have any sort of attachment to the past or aspiration for the future, we may just do anything to ourselves at that point. What stops us then from jumping off a building or coming in the way of a car and getting ourselves run over. I earlier used to think lonely people commit suicide out of sadness, out of the desire to terminate some kind of pain, but now I realize it’s not necessarily so. People can commit suicide simply because they experience moments when they have lost all attachment to their memories and aspirations, and they just get obsessed with some idea that can hurt them, but they don’t care and they simply just do it.

Moments like that were happening to me very frequently around that time, and after that morning, they started happening even more. Suddenly I would see a small object like cap of a bottle and would want to swallow it and choke myself. As I would walk on the pavement of the road, I would see a car coming in front of me at high speed and I would feel like jumping in front of it. It was a strange gripping obsession, where I wanted to do such a thing not because I was pained by my existence and wanted to terminate it, but rather I simply just wanted to do such a thing and see what it felt like.

The mind was an absolute void other than that thought- no memory of the past, no aspiration, nothing!!!

I realized I had to pull myself out of it- otherwise I would kill myself. I told myself – this was enough, I wouldn’t think about anything “existential” or “philosophical” from then on, I would just do light stuff and not think about anything deep until I pull myself out of this situation! And the people who you would largely depend on to pull yourself from such a situation were your parents- too people who would always be there for you at any cost. I decided to go to Calcutta for an indefinite period and stay with parents until I got well. If that meant losing my job, so be it! I am a smart guy with the best qualifications in the world, I will be able to find another decent job for sure!

So within a couple of days from that morning, I took a flight from Delhi to Calcutta. I still remember when the plane landed at the Calcutta airport and we got down from the plane to walk into the airport bus that would take us from the run-way to the airport, I touched the ground with the tip of my fingers and then kissed my fingers. I needed to get back the calibration in my mind I had lost- I needed to feel grounded again- and what better way to feel that than reconnecting with the city I spent in my childhood in, where my parents lived and where I had some of the best memories of my life.

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings

Note from the hills #2 : Shimla, Jan 26-29, 2017

I am writing this note sitting at a cafe in Mall- Shimla’s center-place. It’s a nice and sunny morning out here with a lot of tourists crowding the place. The main hub of all these Indian hillstations is called Mall; Darjeeling’s hub, from where parts of the previous note was written, had the same name. Right around the time of writing that note I thought of writing the next letter from Shimla because I was moving to North India after a month and I couldn’t come up with a better place to follow up on the letter from Darjeeling other than Shimla. It’s funny how I  construct a narrative of what is going on in my life in the plains for a period of a month and then take a train or a bus or a shared taxi to reach the mountains and simply write it all out. 

I know that these crowded neighborhoods up in the mountains, thronged by tourists, probably do not compare with the idea of mountains for an adventurous free spirit living in California. For that person, mountains probably mean traveling to some desolate spots, doing some crazy hikes and camping in the wilderness in the lap of the Sierras or the Rockies. But I find some unique charm in visiting these Indian hill stations from the colonial era nestled on the edge of the mountains. If a city like Berkeley, with all its houses, clubs, schools, hospitals and people, is located right next to Lake Tahoe, it may probably look like these hill stations. Thanks to the Britishers they were built and thanks to India’s heavy population they are thriving. 

Both Shimla and Darjeeling and probably other hill stations in India have a common layout. The bus stand and the railway stations are located lower down the hills. After reaching there on a bus or train from the plains, one has to climb up a lot of stairs or walk up really steep roads, with houses and markets built on the slope of the hill on both sides. Some hotels are constructed in a very interesting fashion. The reception is probably on the fourth floor of the hotel and the rooms are on the first three floors. This is because the hotel opens up to the road on the top floor and lower floors are all constructed by ripping up the hills. For example, a hotel walked in to last night looking for a room, has most of its rooms in the basement. As a result those rooms are devoid of windows. 

I guess there are similar hotels in Darjeeling as well- the two places resemble each other a lot  in their colonial heritage – beautiful churches, majestic government office buildings, toy trains, fancy restaurants and cafes. Though I missed the toy train experience in Darjeeling I got here by toy train, which was much more of a regular train than a toy train. It was a six hour journey from Kalka to Shimla. I was in a crowded noisy general class unreserved compartment with local families and college kids as opposed to the calmer reserved boggies with urban tourists from the plains, covered up in sweaters and blankets. I met a nice family with a one year old kid who lives in Kanderghat- half way between Kalka and Shimla, an elderly gentleman who grew up in Shimla but now lives in Bombay, and a guy from Indore who works in some management company. That guy befriended me right away, bought food for me a couple of times and was clinging to me even when we got to Shimla. Probably he wanted to share the hotel room that night with me and do a  touristy conducted bus or car tour of Shimla and Kufri the next day with me in order to save money. I love talking to people, but the moment they start sticking to me and trying to push me into something I want to get rid of them. I got rid of this guy too last night using a little diplomacy. This is a thing I am noticing about India. I never lived in India as an adult before and so I never noticed this. In US strangers talk to each other and exchange ideas because the ideas interest them. In India, strangers only seem to talk to me when they have some kind of interest, mostly monetary. This saddens me a bit. 

Though the colonial aspects of Shimla and Darjeeling are similar, from this morning’s experience, I feel Shimla has far less number of passages to the 9 – 3/4 th platform compared to Darjeeling. Those crazy Buddhist monasteries and the Lama culture are missing here. As opposed to that there is a lot more mainstream Indianness  here which isn’t really a bad thing. Indian flag flies high in the mall. Statues of former political leaders of India and  Indian commando base in the vicinity are quite in contrast to the Gorkha dominated Darjeeling trying to separate itself from West Bengal and getting its own state called Gorkhaland. 

Monkeys are playing around me in the cafe while I write this. Hopefully they don’t admire coffee and have their eyes on the coffee pot and cup on the table. Earlier today at the Mall a really funny thing happened connected to monkeys. A couple was sitting on one of the park benches. The guy was holding an ice cream cone in his hand, but was engrossed in talking to the girl. Suddenly a monkey sat next to him, snatched the ice cream cone from his hand holding it just like a human being will hold it and ran away. Being close to humans, these hill station monkeys have probably evolved more than their counterparts in the woods!

I think the feeling of ultimate bliss that I experienced in Berkeley lasted in all its perfection till I wrote the last note in Darjeeling. As I understand it, the cause of the bliss was largely the romantic feelings followed by the spiritual exercises with the beloved. Usually a romance this deep ends in the two people being together for a large chunk of their lives, but thanks to the symmetry breaking, for me it ended up in the realization that a conventional union isn’t possible in this case. But instead of being heart broken about this I decided to seek some kind of spiritual union with the best friend and the beloved, which got me into all the spiritual exercises. All that led to an out of the world feeling- a feeling of ultimate bliss- that lasted for months. The best word I can think of to describe those months in Berkeley is “cornucopia” . 

But over the last month, since the trip to Darjeeling, as I spent a week in Calcutta trying to fit in to my home, or rather my parents’ home in Calcutta, the feeling of “cornucopia” seemed to slowly go away.  It’s interesting, I had visited my parents’ one year back around this time and felt perfectly at home, but this time I felt so out of place. So much happened to me or rather my mind between the last time in India and this- my mind went so far away, in some beautiful alien land, through all the meditations and the chants and the bhakti songs and of course the romance. And it just stayed there for months while I was staring at the starry night sky of Berkeley with the best friend, hugging the trees and singing Tagore songs addressed to the divine and hanging out with all the hippies, that live on vans in our college toen and make their livelihood cutting weed higher up in the hills. And after all that, fitting into an elderly domestic Bengali scene with all its mundane conversations about the daily produce at the market, the taste of the food cooked in the kitchen and all those melodramatic Bengali mega serials that go on cable TV became so difficult. 

That week with my family was followed by three weeks in Delhi, in a new city, in a new job, where I lived all by myself and knew no one around.  The uneventful days of work, where I could befriend no one, were followed by lonely nights  in the apartment. In the shivering cold, I would wrap myself up in a shawl, turn off all the lights in the room, play some spiritual song on my cell phone and try to focus on the thought of the divine. But as more days passed the divine seemed to be leaving me. I think the lover, the beloved and the divine form a golden triangle, where when there is a separation between the lover and the beloved as has happened in this case – a physical separation of ten, thousand miles- the whole triangle collapses. As a result the connection between the lover and the divine starts getting lost and the feeling of “cornucopia” slowly starts deserting the lover. 

But I don’t think the feeling has left me altogether. As I sip the coffee here at this table I look at the Mall, flocked with tourists- couples in warm clothes taking selfies and kids on backs of mules. I turn around and look down the valley, dotted with pine trees reminiscent of Berkeley and multi-storeyed concrete houses not reminiscent of Berkeley. The sun shines on my sweater and scarf and me in all its strength and I still feel pretty blissful, like I felt in Darjeeling. The perfection of the moment is probably in the healthiness of that moment, and in looking back at the past with fondness and without regret and looking forward to the future with hope and without worry, rather than just focussing on the moment which a lot of spirituality lessons emphasise upon. As long as the circumstances around me are such that they trigger this feeling I guess everything is fine. But then the entire idea of spirituality, as I understand is, is probably to retain this feeling independent of circumstances, which will be complete nirvana. In that quest I have been living in the solitude of my apartment in Delhi, devoid of everything I cared about but food, clothes and a roof on the top of me at night. But I need to be careful about this. Indulging in this solitude too much can lead to an eerie feeling of loneliness and depression. Thanks to this trip up the hill, I have avoided this trajectory for now but once I go back to the plains and get back to the same routine as the last few weeks and don’t get any friend there,  depression is inevitable. Question is how long can I avoid it!

Earlier in the morning I took a walk along the famous Shimla Walkway that goes from the Mall to Vice Regal lodge as the green signboard says on the roadside. During the walk, on the right side of the road I spotted a guy displaying books written by a famous Indian monk and a climb of stairs went down the slope next to him, leading to something that looked like an ashram. I walked down the stairs, lined by pine trees on either side. These tall pine trees became such a big part of my life in Berkeley. But since I got back to India I have only seen them twice- first in Darjeeling and now in Shimla. Something I noticed in Darjeeling and here too is that a direct access to the trees that has been denied to the people using fences. In Berkeley those trees were growing on a relatively flat land while here they are growing on really steep slopes next to public walkways. So the fences must be erected for the safety of the people, and this has created this barrier between the people and the trees. 

But I really wanted to hug a tree. So I crossed the fence and walked down the fairly steep slope very cautiously. After a little struggle I managed to walk all the way to a pine tree and surrendered myself to the benevolence of the tree, letting it absorb the fear within me from the climb. Perhaps this barrier between the pines and the humans in Indian hill stations is symbolic of all the barriers I am encountering here in India between me and happiness. After living six years in US it is so hard to get used to this. People don’t know how to enjoy their lives here, they are mostly living with their families, confined to their houses and repeating the same routine every day. For example, as I walk along a busy road in Delhi, there is no live musician on the pavement playing some cool riff on the guitar or blowing into the saxophone to elicit a soulful melody- something that was so common in Berkeley or San Francisco. The popular perception about India in the bay area seemed to have been that it is the land of spirituality and deep philosophy. Since I never lived in India as an adult, I probably kind of bought into it. But now it seems India is totally the opposite- at least the cities on the plains and even these crowded townships on the mountains. Most of the philosophical and metaphysical things which dominated our conversations in Berkeley are barely mentioned in conversations here. Most interesting topics are censored. Instead people just talk about monetary stuff and household stuff- whether that’s the people in my immediate and extended family in Calcutta and north Bengal or the people I meet at work in Delhi. It is really getting suffocating and I am dreading going back to the plains to join work a bit now, but I don’t really have anywhere else to go. 

I feel like I have gotten myself into a corner here. But I do not blame anyone for this. As surprising as this sounds, I have a vision about my future in which this country has to play a big role. I can’t state it clearly now because the vision isn’t clear to me either, but it’s slowly building. By the time I left Berkeley I only had two things left in my life- I did not want to die and I loved my beloved very very dearly. It was a really beautiful feeling but it was too out of the world. It wasn’t materialising into anything in the real world and hence it had to end. As I go to sleep every night now, I feel like there is a lot dying inside me, but a very small thing is also growing inside. And hence I need to go back to the plains now to give shape to that vision through my work there. 

Calcutta Corner

Durga Puja 2018

A year has passed since I wrote my blog post “Durga Puja 2017” and now with Puja here in the city once again, it’s time to start writing my new blog post- “Durga Puja 2018”. Last year’s Puja was my first one in seven years. Since I spent majority of those seven years far away from Calcutta, last year’s Puja felt very surreal. On the other hand, this Puja feels like a regular event in my life largely owing to the fact that I have visited Calcutta about once a month since last puja and hence have largely been able to re-establish my connection with the city.

In my last year’s Durga Puja post, I mentioned that this festival is not just about the five day long rituals and the pandals and the crowds but is also about the Bengali literature that is  published before the festival in the form of puja magazines, the movies that come out in the theaters during the puja week, etc.  But unlike my last year’s post where I talked about the pandals first followed by the magazines and the cinema, this time I shall follow a chronological order and hence first start with the works of fiction that I liked from this year’s Puja magazines, followed by the movies and then the pandals.

Literature:

Pujabarshiki Anandamela comes out about two months prior to the Puja. About a month later Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika gets published, and right around the inception of the festival the local newspaper and magazine distributor puts a fresh copy of Sharodiya Desh at one’s doorstep. As a result, by the time of writing this post which is during Mahaashtami and Mahanabami, I have been able to read the Ananadamela almost in its entirety, a large chunk of Ananadabazar Patrika and almost nothing from Desh. So here are the novels I liked so far from this year’s Puja literature.

Mahidadur Antidote (The antidote made by Mahidadu) by Dipanwita Ray (teenage science fiction novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

20181012_140153

This is first time I actually read a science fiction novel in Bengali which can be called hard science fiction without any qualm. As I had pointed out before in an earlier blog post of mine on alchemy, the much adored science fiction stories by Satyajit Ray are way too much on the softer side. There are almost no scientific details in those stories, most of the events defy scientific logic and hence seem highly implausible. On the other hand, this novel is quite a successful attempt at creating an extremely scientifically accurate post-modern world, where humans commute from one place to another in flying cars, visit artificial parks for recreation where rivers, fountains and sea beaches from the natural world have been replicated for human entertainment, human DNA is corrected at birth to bring out the best features in humans, etc. Though it all seems to be an utopia initially, soon there is a turn of events which makes the protagonist question everything that he has been raised up on. The DNA of most humans is corrected at birth by some other humans in power such that an average human is rendered bereft of the power of creativity, imagination, skepticism and dissent. Similar dystopian vision of the world has been dealt with in modern classics like “Brave New World” and “1984” (sadly I haven’t read either yet) or popular movies like “The Matrix” and “Equilibrium”. Yet the plot of this novel “Mahidadur Antidote” seems quite original with the traditional Bengali emotional touch to all the events in the novel, which are vastly futuristic and global in scope and scale.

For me, the beauty of this sci-fi novel lies in the details with which all the different aspects of the post-modern world have been depicted though it has been written for teenagers. But I can imagine that this level of technical details will reduce its entertainment value for a lot of general readers.  Nevertheless, since the society we live has become much more globalized and the amount of information an average person has access to has increased exponentially thanks to the internet, I feel it won’t be too inane to presume that such technically rich hard science fiction novels will capture the psyche of a Bengali reader, known for their intellectual curiosity and cultural refinement, and childish science fiction stories of Satyajit Ray with no technical details whatsoever will pass into oblivion. But sadly not many will probably read this novel. Rather they will continue talking about some Professor Shanku stories that came out forty years back and Satyajit Ray’ son Sandip Roy will make more big budget movies  on them. Another glaring example of modern intellectual Bengalis living vicariously through past legends and ignoring gems of the present!

Jipur Jawa Asha (Jipu Goes Back and Forth) by Sourabh Mukhopadhyay (teenage fiction novel) – published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

20181012_140005

Another beautiful novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela, though very different in flavor from the previous novel. It is largely about the changing times, how schooling has become extremely competitive and grueling in the cities and how refreshing and productive it can be for a kid to take a break from urban schooling and study in a countryside school for a while. The kid here, Jipu, who is the protagonist of the novel, is forced to go to a countryside school because his father loses his job and is unable to pay the heavy tuition fees of his current school, which is meant for kids from upper middle class urban families. Though his parents are traumatized by the experience and are deeply concerned about the future of their son, Jipu falls in love with his new school, thoroughly enjoys the laid back countryside lifestyle and even shows significant improvement in the academic performance. The novel is a joyful, refreshing and yet intriguing read and makes us question the various choices we, ultra urban people, are making everyday  in our lives.

Mantra (Chant) by Binayak Bandopadhyay (novel) published in Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika: 

20181018_113538

Sparsha by Krishnendu Mukhopdhyay and Tarabhora Akasher Niche by Srijato from last year’s puja magazines set my expectation very high regarding contemporary Bengali literature, and this year’s novel Mantra by Binayak Bandopadhyay did not disappoint. Just like Sparsha  and Tarabhora Akasher Niche, Mantra  has a very global feel to it. The events in the novel aren’t restricted to the periphery of Bengal but spreads across the globe, with a majority of the latter events happening in US- mainly on east coast academic campuses. According to me, contemporary Bengali literature, and in extension, the people can be broadly classified into two types- one which is affected by globalization and the one which isn’t. Quite naturally the former type seems much more attractive to me than the latter. In Mantra, the protagonist Uttaran spends his childhood in an Ashram  in Calcutta in the company of Hindu saints and experiences a very spiritual upbringing. An extremely meritorious student, he goes to a top college in Calcutta for undergraduate training in Philosophy and then a top university in US for doctoral training in the same subject. But throughout this entire time he does not desert his monastic celibate lifestyle until a girl, Anasuya, who falls in love with him in Calcutta, follows him all the way to US to spend more time with him. The plot is pretty epic in its scope and takes several twists and turns after that as it follows the spiritual and academic trajectory of Uttaran- his giving up of celibacy and starting a family with Anasuya, raising a mute kid as a single parent, acquiring professional fame through his scholarly works on the Gita, and so on.

Uttaran’s internal struggle regarding the life choices he makes or circumstances force him to make is the central theme of the novel. He is shown to be torn apart internally several times, unable to make a confident choice between a monastic, spiritual, celibate life and a passionate, emotional, lustful family life. What I really liked about the novel that it adopts a very balanced and neutral approach and depicts the bright and dark sides of both these life choices. At a personal level, I largely agree with the writer on various points. If everybody in this world chooses to be a monk, this civilization will indeed cease to exist in a very short time. Sexuality is the driving force behind continuation of our species, and hence all the passion and emotional vulnerability that come with it need to be embraced rather than be shunned. Also, even if a monk chooses to live a family life driven by circumstances, they can always go back to their original lifestyle and can pursue spiritual advancement again in future.

I personally think that whether you are a monk or a family man, a celibate or a casanova, a musician or a clerk, you have to survive on this planet, find your own balance and live your life. So it really doesn’t matter much in the end. And death will strike upon everyone one time or the other, Even the most spiritually uplifted monks aren’t exempt from that. Yes, they can claim that our consciousness does not cease to exist. Extreme amount of dedication to spiritual practices in this life can lead to a much more peaceful after-life or something like that. The slight amount of subjectivity that always pervades our experience of the world we live in and our lack of understanding of the functioning of the brain certain leave space for such ideas, but based on personal experience, I can say that delving too much in such metaphysical ideas has quite a chance of bringing more suffering in life than happiness. Death is gonna come eventually to us all, and whether anything happens after death or not can be found out then. It’s far more enjoyable to enjoy this “real”, physical world we live in in all its diversity and derive pleasure from little things in life than obsessing oneself with abstract stuff like metaphysics and spirituality all the time. The protagonist Uttaran probably also feels the same several times during the course of the novel.

Overall, this novel is a great read. However one thing that probably makes it fall short of a classic unlike Sparsha and Tarabhora Akasher Niche is its weak narration style. I read Tarabhora Akasher Niche the second time very recently and it felt nearly as good as reading it the first time even though I knew the entire plot this time. This primarily happened because Srijato is one of the best Bengali poets of modern times and even the prose he writes reads like excellent poetry. The words resonated in my consciousness like some soulful melodies played on the sitar by some maestro. The places in which the events of the novel happen got beautifully projected in my mind as if I was sitting in front of a Vincent Van Gogh painting in an art gallery and relishing it alongside a cup of hot black coffee. Though this novel Mantra had plenty of scope of reaching that level of excellence since it dwelt upon spiritual life in India and academic life in the west, it quite failed to do so. Hardly any picture connected to Uttaran’s childhood or adult life gets painted in the eye of the mind while reading the novel. I kept turning the pages of this really long novel strictly because of the content. Hence, now that I have finished reading it once, I don’t think I will read it once again in near future.

Movies:

Manojder Adbhut Bari (Manoj’s strange house), directed by Anindya Chatterjee

This movie is adapted from the  critically acclaimed teenage fiction novel of the same name, written by prominent Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. The novel came out several decades ago and kicked off Shirshendu’s Adbhuture series – a series of teenage fiction novels full of comic and mystical elements in a village setting. This series, along with Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series and Sunil Ganguly’s Kakababu series, forms the cornerstone of Bengali teenage fiction. I have read almost all the novels in this series barring this one- “Manojder Adhbut Bari”. But all the novels in the series have pretty much the same setting and the same kind of characters – a king who isn’t much aware of his surroundings, an ever vigilent thief, bunch of hilarious dacoits, a saint or a local lunatic who makes mystic statements which sound like rambling initially but later turns out to be extremely insightful, some conservative old lady and a few curious kids. The plos are also fairly similar – there is a treasure hidden somewhere in the village, its existence is never mentioned in the early part of the story but only gets acknowledged towards the middle and then rest of the story is about finding that treasure. As a result, though I didn’t know the plot, I had a fair idea of what’s coming next when I sat at the theater to watch the movie.

Probably for that reason and also because the plot turned out to be quite weak compared to Shirshendu’s other novels in the series like “Pagla Saheber Kobor”, “Jhiler Dhare Bari” and “Harano Kakatuya”, I didn’t enjoy the movie much. I won’t say that in the movie the director failed to bring out the typical Shirshendu brand of humor that pervades all the novels of the series. Rather I felt he was quite able to bring it out, just that it has stopped working on me. I had a similar experience when I read the Shirshendu novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela and the last year’s. Probably because I have read too much of it- the same humor and characters have been repeated every year in the puja edition of Anandamela for the last several decades. Also the world we live in has changed too rapidly since the inception of this Adbhuture  series and Shirshendu’s Adbhuture world could not keep pace with it. As a result, I felt much more sad than irate after spending a huge chunk of money and time watching this movie on the day of its release- particularly when the author Shirshendu himself made a cameo towards the end of the movie and pretty much looked as old and obsolete as the world of his imagination.

Ek Je Chhilo Raja (There lived a king), directed by Srijit Mukherjee

These days Durga Puja has become incomplete without the release of a Srijit Mukherjee movie. So I had to check this one out- though I haven’t ever taken much interest in the famous Bhawal Sanyasi case or seen the Bengali classic movie “Sanyasi Raja”, based around it. In the beginning of “Ek Je Chhilo Raja”, Srijit makes the claim that his entire plot, barring the characters of the prosecution and defence lawyer,  is based on historical facts and events .  So it won’t be apt for me to critically review the movie without knowing all these historical facts. But, since I am quite interested in the history of Bengal and legal philosophy, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie with its historical references, intriguing courtroom drama, clash of ideas like feminism and patriotism, etc. The short conversation between the two lawyers, played by Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt, was the most brilliant part of the movie for me. Sen’s  dismissal of patriotism as an emotion centered around an abstract concept based  building borders on a map echoes similar ideas that I had nurtured before but do not entertain much these days. Yes, a nation is an abstract concept based on borders drawn on a map, but those borders drawn on the map are quite related to distinct features in the physical world like mountains and seas. People who lived on different sides of a mountain or a sea hardly interacted across the ages and hence formed their own cultures and thereby their own countries. So patriotism is not that abstract a sentiment as some intellectuals portray it to be.

Another thing I really liked about the movie is there is no clear right and wrong in the story, just like in any mature drama. Both the prosecution and defense side think they have the higher moral ground. The conflict among laws of the physical world, laws institutionalized by humans to govern society and  laws of the metaphysical or divine world, if anything like that at all exists, has interested me a lot over the years and this movie brings out that conflict beautifully towards the end. Overall, Srijit Mukherjee has made a brilliant movie once again and it shouldn’t be missed.

Using “Maharajo Eki Saje”, sung by favorite contemporary Rabindrasangeet singer Sahana Bajpayee, in the soundtrack made me even more happy about the movie, though the entire song seems to be lifted from her album “Ja Bolo Tai Bolo” that came out a few years ago as opposed to being reproduced specifically for the film.

Pandals / Street Art:

Here are some pictures from the puja pandals I visited this year. Much like the previous time, I only saw a few pandals in south Calcutta (Jodhpur Park- Tollygunge- Behala area) and some in North Calcutta (Hatibagan- Shovabazar area) this time. Here are the pictures from the very best of them.

 

Barisha Sarbojonin takes the city dwellers on a trip to the Anadamans, right among the Jarawas.

 

Shibmandir1Shibmandir2

Dazzling orange-hued pandal and idol of the goddess in Shibmandir Sarbojonin- brick has been used as the main component of their pandal decorations.

KashiBoseLaneAhiritola1

Gorgeous interiors of old zamindar houses in puja pandals of Kasi Bose Lane and Ahiritola Sarbojonin

The old zamindar house atmosphere nicely emulated by Kasi Bose Lane Durga Puja Committee and Ahiritola Sarbojonin is present quite in its original form at Shovabazaar Rajbari.

The divine female, unarmed, rests in all her tranquility along with a repentant Mahisashura in an other worldly pandal made by Hatibagan Sarbojonin

 

That’s all from this year’s puja. Aschhe bochhor abar hobe.

Cricket

My dream cricket XI (1996-2007)

I watched cricket very seriously in the entire period between the World Cup of 1996 and the World Cup of 2007, and after that stopped watching it altogether. Lack of cable television wherever I lived after 2007 was one of the reasons. People who lived around me in those places weren’t much interested in the game either, which was another reason for my drop in interest in cricket. Also it is probably not a coincidence that India-England test series in 1996 marked the arrival of my hometown hero, Sourav Ganguly, in test cricket and World Cup 2007 was the large major ODI tournament he played.

As I moved back to India in 2017 and got a cable TV in my house cricket got back to my life once again and made me reminiscence those glorious days of test and ODI cricket with the Tendulkar-s and the Lara-s and the Shane Warne-s. So here are my dream test and ODI XI, only picking players who dominated cricket during that period. Again, I never understood the technicalities of the game that well and so my teams may not be optimised with the right combinations for the best performance. It’s rather made from the heart largely to recount the amazing moments those cricketers gave us to cherish. As a result, performance in big matches like World Cup matches and some crucial Test series matches has played more importance in selection of the team than average, technique, etc.

Dream Test XI:

1. Mathew Hayden

2. Virender Sehwag

I have found it harder to choose the openers than the middle order batsmen because  unlike the four middle order batsmen that follow in the list these two batsmen came to prominence towards the later part of the period I picked up here. Still, these two batsmen completely dominated that later period with their explosive batting, consistent performance and most importantly their triple tons. So I can’t leave out either of them.

3. Jack Kallis

4. Sachin Tendulkar

5. Ricky Ponting

6. Brian Lara

Jack Kallis is there at no. 3 to anchor the innings. Rahul Dravid could have been another option, but Jack Kallis could also bowl. That has given him an edge over Rahul Dravid to get into the squad. Making a dream XI like this always makes you sad in the end because of the players you have to exclude. In my case, the fact that Dravid is not included in my dream test XI really makes me sad. Also, V.V.S Laxman for that matter!

The batsmen at no. 4,5 and 6 were the three batsmen of that era, so it is impossible to drop any of them.

7. Adam Glichrist

The man you first think of when you think of a wicketkeeper- batsman in the pre- Dhoni and pre- Sangakara era! He single handedly changed the role of no. 7 batsman in the squad in test cricket.

8. Wasim Akram

9. Glen Mc Grath

10. Allan Donald   (Anil Kumble or Muthaiah Muralidhan on a subcontinent track)

11. Shane Warne

Wasim Akram and Glen McGrath make it to pretty much anybody’s dream XI, so those are obvious choices. For the third fast bowler, I have to go with Allan Donald, thanks to the amazing memories I have of India’s tour of South Africa in 1996-97. That face smeared with white cream, that gentle and yet sinister run up and smooth delivery style which all of us tried to imitate in gali cricket, and that menacing speed at which the ball came towards the batsmen – Allan Donald is my personal favorite and has to be in the squad! For the only spinner, I will go with Shane Warne just like most other people will. He had been the very definition of spin bowling in that era. In case it’s a subcontinent spinning track, I will drop Donald and pick Anil Kumble or Muthaiah Muralidharan in his place.

Captain: Wasim Akram

He is probably the most senior player in the team and  has been really well respected throughout his career. He should lead the team.

Dream ODI XI:

I have found making the dream ODI XI list much harder than the test XI. All the dominant teams of that era- India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa- could contribute 5-6 players each to this team. As a result I have made some hard choices- some of them quite unorthodox. Here is my list.  I go with the combination of 4 batsmen, 4 bowlers,  2 all rounders and 1 wicketkeeper-batsman.

1. Adam Gilchrist

2. Sachin Tendulkar

Since I am going with 4 batsmen, I couldn’t pick Sanath Jayasurya or Sourav Ganguly in Glicrist’s spot though I would have really wanted to. Choosing the other opener here is a no brainer.

3. Ricky Ponting

4. Jack Kallis (all rounder)

5. Aravinda DeSilva

6. Michael Bevan

7. Lance Klusener (all rounder)

Ricky Ponting at no. 3 is probably a no brainer. Jack Kallis is there at no. 4 to anchor the innings- plus he had been excellent with the ball in limited overs cricket. I choose Aravinda DeSilva at no. 5 instead of Steve Waugh or Mohammad Azharduddin because of the two consecutive ODI centuries he scored in the semi-final and final of the 1996 World Cup. Michael Bevan was the best finisher in ODI cricket before MS Dhoni arrived in the scene, so his position at no. 6 of my squad probably cannot be questioned.

Lance Klusener at no. 7 is probably an unorthodox choice but again I have given a lot of importance to big match performance and personal memories here. 1999 World Cup- need I say more? With respect to cricket, that guy probably gave me the most excitement and also the biggest heartbreak! Those two boundaries smashed through mid-off, followed by a dot ball and that “fatal” attempt to take a single- I don’t think I can ever watch a replay of that over in my life! A couple of decades has passed since then which included almost a decade for me away from cricket and yet it remains as a painful memory which I never want to go back to. So my dream XI will be incomplete without him.

8. Wasim Akram

9. Glen McGrath

10. Shawn Pollock

11. Shane Warne

The bowlers in my ODI XI are pretty much the same as that in my test XI, just that in place of Allan Donald I choose his fellow teammate Shawn Pollock in the shorter format of the game.

Captain: Wasim Akram

12th man: Jonty Rhodes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calcutta Corner

Recurring imagery in Anjan Dutta’s music

After writing a few really cerebral posts which are so typical of my blog (the last one was particularly dark), I felt like writing something light and fun. So I chose something which is much closer to my heart than my mind- the music of good old Anjan Dutta, somebody who Bengalis both love and hate. His songs like “Mary Ann”, “Bela Bose” and “Mr Hall”  became a mainstay of urban college music scene in Bengal in the early 90-s. In the new millennium, just when people thought his popularity had faded and the themes of his songs- guitar, Darjeeling, cigarette and teenage love- had grown stale, he rekindled the enthusiasm about his music in people by making movies around his songs. Movies like “Madly Bengali”, “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na”  and “Aami Ashbo Phirey” that released in the 2010s were essentially celebrations of the music he made as a singer- songwriter a couple of decades back.

As I said, along with multitudes of fans, he has plenty of detractors particularly among members of the older generation, who probably cannot relate to his anglophilia, his free flowing hipster lifestyle and his obsession with cigarettes, alcohol and western country and folk music. The fact that his songs are not musically rich and are quite simply glorified poems is another popular allegation against him.  I defended him on numerous occasions in debates with elders, as well as some friends, and went to the length of saying that he is a better songwriter than Rabindranath Tagore. After exploring Tagore’s music much more in the recent years, I don’t think I can make that claim any more but I still see where my argument came from. Tagore’s lyrics is mostly abstract, he seeks some form of divinity in everything that he sees around him – clouds, rivers, flowers, meadows- and finds a sense of tranquility in them. On the other hand, Anjan Dutta’s lyrics is highly grounded in “reality”- he talks about the daily commute in the crowded buses of Calcutta, the lonely saxophone player in a five star hotel, two tiny rooms under the staircase with the plaster fading off the walls- the list goes on. Even when his imagery shifts from the crowded urban landscape to the serenity of the hills, he is still very “real” – the railing overlooking the steep slope, the yellow fingers of the piano teacher moving over the keys of the piano, etc. So in a way the contrast between Anjan Dutta’s lyrics and Tagore’s lyrics perfectly encapsulates the central theme of my blog- the real versus the abstract.

Okay, I again deviated from my promise of not making this post cerebral like my other posts. So let’s get back on track- I am simply gonna describe some of the recurrent imageries in Anjan Dutta’s music over the years and have a lot of fun in the process. I am not describing the most talked about ones here- everyone is well aware of his obsession with Park Street, Darjeeling, Anglo Indians, cigarette, guitar and Bob Dylan.  This post is about the less discussed ones, but strangely these images have repeated in a lot of his songs, starting from the early 90s to the late 2010s.

Buttonless Shirt- Why exactly is he so obsessed with a buttonless shirt? Probably to him it’s symbolic of a free flowing lifestyle, but since he has talked about it in multiple songs, for example. “Ache beporoya botam bihin shirt” from the song “Tobu Jodi Tumi” in the movie “Dutta vs Dutta” or  “Botam bihin shirt ta amar chhoto keno hoy” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”, one has to wonder what is this fetish with buttonless shirts really about. In fact what exactly is a buttonless shirt? Does a simple round neck T-shirt count as buttonless? For sure it doesn’t have a button. Or does he simply want to the convey the idea of wearing a shirt without buttoning it up? In fact he posed himself like that too often in the movie “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona”, so probably that’s what it is.

Poor kids living on the streets of Calcutta, bathing under the roadside municipal taps – “Tobu-o neche uthey abar rashtar kol, Nachte nachte chaan kore jaay, rashtar cheler dool” from the song “Sokal” in his recent movie “Ami Ashbo Phirey” invokes quite similar images in my head as “Tumi dekhechho ki Hatujole 1 Loyd Street-tumi dekhechho ki borshay….sei langta chheletar hashi” from the song “Tumi Dekhechho ki”, composed in the 90s. All jokes apart, this imagery is really touching just like most of his other imagery and speaks volumes about his lyrical genius.

Japan- Anjan Dutta has some weird obsession about Japan. Sure, he considers his music to be international and it indeed is, and he often tries to transcend all political and cultural barriers with his lyrics and music. So he frequently talks about other countries in his songs, but he talks about Japan a bit too often- and the references to Japan are pretty arbitrary and almost have no context whatsoever. For example, he repeats the phrase “Ke Hindu Ke Japani” in the songs – “Que Sara Ra Ra” from the movie “Ganesh Talkies” and “Ami Ashbo Phirey” from the movie with the same name.Then again a couple of decades ago in the song “Aamar Janala” he wrote- “Keu janala khule Alabamay bangla gaan i gay, Keu porchhe Koran boshe tar Japani janalay”. Interestingly, he followed up the imagery of singing Bengali songs in Alabama and reading the Quran in Japan with that of playing guitar in Mexico. Probably back then he didn’t have much access to the internet just like the rest of us and wasn’t aware of the fact that the image of someone playing guitar in Mexico did not really break any cultural stereotype and promote a sense of internationalism unlike the previous two images- in fact playing the guitar was probably a very common thing in Mexico and still is.

 

Getting up early in the morning and watching the sunrise- Along with internationalism, the pain of growing up and missing one’s childhood is a dominant theme of Anjan Dutta’s lyrics. And he depicts it really well through his imagery, thereby making his songs one of the closest things to my heart. And just like he refers to Japan often to promote internationalism, he talks about not getting up early in the morning any more to watch the sun rise whenever he misses his childhood- for example, the lines “Bhorbela ar lukie dekha hoy na, Surjodoy dei je faki”  from the song “Koto ki korar chhilo re” in “Madly Bengali”  or the lines “Bhor bela te bhor bela amar Dekha hoye othey na je aar
Ke jaane ki karone” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”.

 

There are many other such recurring images in the lyrics of his songs, which together build up the world of Anjan Dutta- a world which I have always relied upon to provide me with support in moments of pain and with excitement in moments of joy. Most importantly in moments when I have got lost in some abstract world and felt detached from this world we live in, only to feel scared subsequently, his music provided me with the perfect “grounding”- something I badly needed. It reminded me of and made me embrace again my roots, my passions and my identity which I had tried to transcend with all the other worldly spiritual stuff, a journey which ended up being scary in the end.

 

Lastly, yes, the themes and images of his songs and also his movies are repetitive, and a lot of people I know have voiced their dislike for him because of that, but this is what I have always said in his defence- he is not a mainstream playback singer who sings songs written by other people like a machine- some being about romance, some about patriotism, some about friendship and so on. Instead, he writes his own lyrics and he writes them from within. As a result, since he is just one individual and has had a limited set of experiences, his songs and movies are bound to be repetitive. And that is probably the case with any original artist of modern times in any domain of art unless the name of the artist is Satyajit Ray.

 

 

 

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Why not trip over death or try kill oneself

Over last Fall and Spring, I had scribbled down on my notebook several reasons why one should not obsess over the idea of death, or worse, actually try out some self destructive physical act as a result of the obsession. I wrote them down as and when these reasons occurred to me. An important thing I wanted to clarify here is that these reasons are mainly applicable to people who contemplate suicide mainly out of an obsession with the idea of death and what happens to someone after death, and not to people who contemplate suicide to terminate the mental pain or escape from the difficult situation they are in. The latter is considered to be the main reason for suicide- a person is in immense emotional pain all the time and cannot take it any more, so they kill themselves. But as experience has taught me, one can have self destructive thoughts simply out of isolation or too much pondering over philosophical issues. They can get so immersed in their own mental/ abstract world that they keep questioning whether the physical world they live in and share with others is real or whether it is simply an illusion. After that at some point, they start toying with the idea of death too much because to them death, being quite absolute in nature, opens up the possibility of experiencing some kind of absolute reality.

Here I have listed some arguments I have come up with over time which one can use to avoid having such weird “trip”-s about death and thereby getting into a self destructive spiral.

  1. Death is inevitable. It will happen to everyone. Obsession about something makes sense if the probability of that thing happening is pretty low, e.g. publishing a research paper in a high Impact Factor journal, writing a best seller novel, winning the Nobel Prize, leading Indian cricket team to a victory at the World Cup, etc. Based on past record death is an absolute certainty, so why obsess over something that will happen anyway?
  2. All these philosophies, poetry, music etc. hint at the existence of a beautiful ideal world beyond this physical world, but there is really no guarantee that such a world exists. Also if it exists, with death it will appear anyway and death will happen eventually. So why rush it? Death is irreversible, so don’t toy with it. Let it happen in its due course. 
  3. This world with mountains, rivers, cities, friends and family is pretty intricate, intriguing and awesome. Even if the whole thing is a simulation, as it often appears with isolation and too much “deep thinking”, let it be a simulation. We have always been in this simulation but probably never noticed it before because it is a wonderfully intricately designed one anyway. For example, when we were having fun in high school or college, when did we ever think that the world around us could be a self consistent simulation?  It’s only recently as we have experienced the life more and more and patterns have started to repeat that we have started bringing up these questions. It doesn’t really matter if the world around is a simulation or real because as long as everything is consistent, which has always been the case minus some fringe elements, our experience of the world remains the same either way. Also, eve if it’s all a simulation, what is the reason to want to end the simulation abruptly through death? That thought didn’t occur so far even though we had always been inside the simulation.
  4. Love holds the world together. This world may be a simulation but our near and dear ones really love us and they will be devastated if something happens to us. So never never contemplate death. Explore all your passions and stay obsessed with them. Stay distracted!
  5. The fundamental purpose of existence is to eat and reproduce. That’s how evolution works . The spiritual framework rejects this idea and tries to find a higher purpose for existence. So in that sense a spiritual journey is anti-evolutionary. Probably that’s why it’s extremely demanding to go on the spiritual path. So better not to take it too seriously and get guided by evolution and chill out!
  6. Spending too much time insolation and questioning what is the purpose of life doesn’t make much sense because we didn’t start from such an ideal situation in the first place. We spent first twenty years of our lives with family and friends and never asked ourselves what was the purpose of life. But then when we started living by ourselves and experienced more solitude, this question started arising in our minds. Since we got entangled in a non ideal world to begin with why ask idealist questions now!! Just continue with the non idealities, spend life the way you spent your initial years. Stay connected to the “real world” one way or the other.
  7. Isolation and loneliness lets the subjective aspect of our consciousness, as described by philosopher David Chalmers while formulating the “hard problem of consciousness”, grow and hence outsude world feels like simulation because of too much mental activity inside and too little physical activity outside. Don’t spend too much time alone!
  8. Don’t even try to act like you are doing things close to what can hurt you. Brain is a pattern forming machine. It has somehow related those things that gave you “death trips” with death and your OCD further makes you want do these things or act like doing them. Don’t respond to it at all.
  9. There is no absolute reality at least the living cannot experience it. A subjective feeling of consciousness always pervades our perception of reality, which is a calibration  of current signal to some previous signal already existing in the brain as memory. May be at the moment of our death we will perceive absolute reality, but we may not as well. Anyway death is an eventuality, so at that moment of dying the idea can  be tested anyway. No need to rush it.
    Also probably if someone loses all memory whatsoever or feels a sense of detachment from all memory, the latter can happen out of isolation and prolonged lack of interest in worldly things, they can perceive something very close to absolute reality but the experience is much more scary than fun. There is perhaps no need to revisit it again. Instead of trying to detach oneself from memories and try to live “in the moment” without relating the present with your past and future, it is a much better idea according to me to make new memories and experience the world around in the light of those memories. Your memories are what you are, they are your identity. This idea that memory is painful and one should get rid of their ego by transcending these memories and experience life only by living in the present is often preached in the spirituality domain of human knowledge. However from personal experience this idea, though can be an immense source of bliss in the initial days, eventually alienates one from their surroundings, makes them very lonely inside and leads to existential crisis. In the name of losing your ego you may lose your identity, don’t do that!
  10. If we study human evolution in this planet, we will observe that forming groups has made man survive and eventually outclass all other animals. Forming group has been our biggest strength. Thus evolution has made man a social animal. We need each others’ support to live. There may be outliers to this but majority want to live in society with company and not feel alone. So many things are missing when alone like love and humor, which are essential to our existence. So we must live together, not alone. Even human consciousness is collective end of the day. The language in which we think, the manner in which we talk, our hand gestures are all products of our upbringing in the society. Living alone suddenly makes you question all those things about yourself which you had taken for granted so long because the collective nature of your consciousness starts disappearing slowly. Is it an experience really worth having?
  11. Assuming the realist/ materialist view point of life is correct, this world exists the way it is whether we live or die. But again this world is us in the end. Our job is to live this world and people there in and learn as much and make memories and then impact the world so that we live in this world through our memories after we die. death is gonna happen anyway . Question is what do we do to impact this world before we die.
  12.  As long as train of thoughts leads you from one idea to another without raising any question mark / existential crisis / suicidal thought you are fine. Just keep loving this world. Another thing that one needs to be careful about is obsessive thought in general. Even if it’s not about death, even if it’s about something else, always thinking about it means you are indulging in it too much. Indulging in something is fine, if you don’t indulge in the world then you start feeling detached from everything and all the death trip starts as explained previously, but if you indulge in something too much that can lead to a lot of pain later and then again to avoid the pain you will get into the detachment path and the cycle will repeat. Best way to proceed is probably to balance it all out, indulge but don’t indulge too much, be practical and yet be spiritual, be spiritual and yet be practical!
  13. According to the concept of arrow of time, time moves only in the forward direction. However an interesting thing I realised in that context is that though in the physical world things can get created or destroyed, in the mental world things only get created. Any thought that has occurred to a man lives on through the memories of the man in the others’ minds, the books he / she writes or the work he/ she does. Sometimes memories go latent but they are always there. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in the poem “Hothat Dekha” (A sudden meeting) – Raater sob tara thake diner aalor gobhire (All stars of the night stay hidden in the depth of the sunlight during the day). Right circumstances bring back the latent memories. Hence always stay in touch with the world and through that stay in touch with your memories. Love the world and its people, and contribute more to this world through your work. This way you add more to the world. Things only accumulate in mental world, nothing gets destroyed. Keep adding stuff.

Most importantly try to adopt a middle ground whenever there are  contradictory ideas, don’t take any idea to the extreme and do chill out!

Fantasy

Alchemy, equivalent exchange and karma, Professor Shanku and Full Metal Alchemist

Though I have taken a lot of interest in metaphysical stuff over the years and dedicated large chunks of this blog to discussions on that, I never took much interest in alchemy perhaps because of my natural lack of inclination towards chemistry. I read Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shanku story “Shankur Suborno Sujog” (Shonku’s Golden Opportunity) very recently but didn’t really look up on alchemy after that. Well, Satyajit Ray based his science fiction stories on a lot of stuff- from time travel to unicorns, from witchcraft to artificial intelligence, so why bother? Also to be honest as much as I respect Satyajit Ray for all the amazing movies he made and the fictional sleuth he created- Feluda, who was a large part of my childhood, I never was a big fan of his Professor Shanku stories. As a kid, I didn’t understand or appreciate them much, and as an adult I felt them to be too childish. Satyajit Ray was an artistic genius and probably had a lot of curiosity about science too, but in my opinion that is not enough to write good science fiction. One actually needs to know a little bit of science so that the story has enough details to appear realistic even though it is fantasy. Satyajit Ray probably lacked the knowledge of science to fill up his stories with sound details. As a result most of the Shanku stories, despite providing a good read, are hardly memorable- Shanku owns a gun which makes any object in front of it vanish when fired, he makes a machine which can translate the language of ants, he makes some object which can float in air to defy gravity. Sure this is science fiction and not science and so I am ready to suspend my disbelief, but provide me with the details of how these things happen for science’s sake!

Okay enough of Satyajit Ray bashing, now back to alchemy! In the story “Shanku’s Suborno Sujog”, Professor Shanku and his two other friends, both scientists like him, try to reproduce the experiment to transform other objects to gold that has been reported in a Spanish diary from medieval Europe, when the study of alchemy had its heyday. They keep putting different objects in a well of some liquid that they prepare as a part of the experiment but to their dismay nothing turns into gold until the villain of the story accidentally jumps into it and his entire body is turned into gold. The scientists realize that the transformation to gold demands life and hence it works only for living objects.

I read this story and pretty much forgot about it until recently when I started watching the massively popular anime- “Full Metal Alchemist”- the 2003 version. I finished all its episodes in the last one month, and also watched the sequel movie- “Conqueror of Shamballa”. The series made me look up on alchemy and understand the basics of the different concepts in alchemy that have been highlighted in the show- transmutation, transmutation circle, law of equivalent exchange, gate of truth, philosopher’s stone etc. Most of the information available on the internet about these concepts is based on the TV series and the manga it is based on, so I am not very sure how many of these concepts are borrowed from actual annals on alchemy written over the ages, and how many have been concocted for the sake of the manga. Nevertheless, I will discuss some of the concepts over here and relate them with other things that have interested me in the past.

The law of equivalent exchange is the fundamental law of alchemy- for everything gained in the world, something of equal value must be lost, though the series never explicitly lays out what parameters determine equal value. Some examples are shown instead- the protagonists, Ed and Al, try to bring their dead mother back to life but Ed loses his arm and leg and Al loses his entire body, the teacher Izumi loses organs inside her belly in the attempt to regain her lost child, umpteen human lives need to be sacrificed to create the philosopher’s stone and so on. The idea is indeed similar to that in Professor Shanku’s story – only living objects can be transmuted to gold, i.e., creation of gold comes at the cost of sacrifice of a life.

In the series, Ed and Al’s understanding of the law of equivalent exchange evolves over time. When they are young and innocent, they take the law as absolute truth. As they grow older and have several life changing experiences in their pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, and particularly after an altercation with the antagonist, Dante, at  the climax of the story, their absolute belief in the law seems to erode. Dante passionately argues that the law of equivalent exchange is a theory that has been concocted to delude innocent minds. The world is cruel, random and unfair. Good things happen to some people and bad things to the others for no reason whatsoever. By the end of the series, Al concedes that he no longer considers equivalent exchange an absolute law. He rather interprets it as a promise- a ray of hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that someday he will reunite with his brother Ed.

I find this theory of equivalent exchange very similar to the theory of karma in ancient philosophy. According to the theory of karma, everything in this world happens for a reason. Events that are separated by vast expanses of space and long passages of time are actually connected by strings, invisible to us. Though this idea seemed implausible to me initially, experiences in life have taught me otherwise. As I have mentioned in some of my other posts, there is always a subjective aspect to consciousness which will keep our understanding of the world around us grey forever. Once someone is isolated enough or is deeply in pain due to a heartbreak or is obsessed with metaphysical ideas over a long period of time, their mind works in ways like it does never before. The mind starts making long range connections and relating events with each other, which it always considered uncorrelated before. It is not impossible that an individual, possessed with such a mental state, will be afraid crossing the road because a car can run him over for the way he mistreated his girlfriend six months back.

I do not think we can ever be sure whether our world is so causal, correlated and deterministic as the karma theory considers it to be. This world might as well be completely random and unfair, or it can be somewhere in between – some things happen for a reason and some other things just happen randomly. However what I do believe is that every individual should have the right to choose their own view of the world. And just like Al chooses to believe in equivalent exchange since it instills hope in him, I also choose to believe in karma but not take it as an absolute because that way I take everything I do and everything that happens to me way too seriously. I find it difficult to do simple things in everyday life, which always involve a little risk, if my mind is haunted with the thought that they may have severe consequences as a result of something I did wrong ages ago.

Another interesting concept in the series which I find worth discussing is the concept of the Gate of Truth. In the 2003 TV series “Full Metal Alchemist”, the Gate is presented as a portal between two worlds. One of the worlds is the world we live in, where modern science is dominated by physics and its derivatives and alchemy has no power, and the other world is that of Ed and Al’s- the state of Amestris, where alchemy is considered the most superior science. Majority of the episodes in the series is set in the latter world, with the former appearing in the last few episodes of the series and the sequel movie.

Essentially in our world, practice of alchemy was not that uncommon even a few centuries ago. Attempts were made in different parts of the world, particularly in Europe at the later stage, to transmute different substances to gold, develop panaceas that can cure all diseases and create the philosopher’s stone. However in the post Renaissance era, with the widespread success of physics, attempts were made to rigorously quantify and record the various practices in alchemy, and to separate the procedures performed on various substances as a part of alchemy from the spiritual practices connected to it like the purification of soul and grant of eternal life. Thus refined versions of age old practices in alchemy, with the metaphysical connotations stripped off them, became what we call “chemistry” today, while alchemy got the status of an outdated, occult branch of knowledge. The series Full Metal Alchemist and the manga behind it essentially imagine a world which has a very similar history as ours, just that alchemy does not fall from grace there and physics and chemistry do not take its place. The protagonists Ed and Al and most of the other characters belong to that world. In the series, that world of alchemy is separated from our world by the Gate of Truth- an idea very similar to the central theme of my blog- bridge between the physical world and the abstract world.

A few things about the characters and storyline in the series need to be mentioned before I end the post. The expressiveness on Ed’s face at every close up shot is simply mesmerising. The artists deserve a huge credit for that. That, alongside the innocent conviction in Al’s voice every time he states his intentions or opinions, will stay with me for a long time. I also found the use of comic elements at different points in the show, even in the serious situations, extremely innovative and refreshing. Ed going berserk every time he is called short and Al holding him back screaming “brother” innocently never gets old.